Smarty-Pants Book Club: Let's talk process

May 25, 2016

This installment of Smarty Pants takes a peek under the hood to consider processes: how we do what we do.

Specifically, we engaged in a lively discussion about a process that has become increasingly popular in recent years and is the subject of Google’s book, Sprint. (Our book club meetings are quite a process themselves, more akin to herding cats than anything else, but we’ll save that for another time…)

Ever so briefly: a sprint is a highly focused effort undertaken to make progress quickly. An analogy might be running the 40 yard (36.6 meter) dash, compared to running a marathon. Let’s consider the hypothetical example of, say, writing a blog post about a book club meeting. A sprint would be a good choice of methodology because the author – again, hypothetically – has procrastinated the task of writing the blog post for a couple of weeks and needs to keep his promise to do so. (Also, this hypothetical author may not have actually read the book himself, but that’s neither here nor there… Besides, as we’ll see below there are specific roles that each team member fulfils. Not everybody has to read the book – somebody has to do the actual writing.)

Let’s consider the sprint approach to writing this particular blog post. The first step is to re-assemble five to seven people from the original meeting to remind him what his cryptic notes mean and potentially write large chunks of what will become the blog post. At this point, the author may have to take on the role of Facilitator and Decider, since he will ultimately have to assemble the blog post and protect his integrity and reputation as a dependable team mate. I should mention here that hypothetically bringing very real snacks to the sprint is a good bribe idea. Nobody leaves this hypothetical meeting behind locked doors until the post is written. Curiously, a great deal of camaraderie is built among the surviving members of such hypothetical sprints.

During our discussion, one person commented that the dramatically accelerated pace of a sprint week compared to a “normal” project week can sometimes cause discomfort among team members. (Likely due to a desire to be as careful, thorough and polished as possible.) In fact, someone described their experience with sprints as being inherently messy. However, the benefits can be large, and the gains in speed are possible with the proper structuring of the sprint: a small, tight team that is tasked with a single, clear goal and shielded from interruptions.

A series of sprints can be used to iterate on an idea or group of related ideas, but how long can a sprint be before it loses its potency?

The specific roles of the team members are an important factor. While each team member has an important role, there was consensus that the role of Decider is paramount, followed closely by the Facilitator. Since we are in the business of working closely for and with our client partners, a philosophical question arose about whether or not someone from the client firm should always have the role of Decider, and how that choice might be influenced by the current stage of the larger project.

Since many people had experience using sprints on various projects, there was also discussion of how prescriptive the process should be. For example, how scalable is it? The five-day timeline illustrated in the book certainly feels like it belongs at one end of the spectrum, but sometimes you learn what you need in the first two or three days of a five-day sprint. A series of sprints can be used to iterate on an idea or group of related ideas, but how long can a sprint be before it becomes just a short project and loses its potency? An analogy was offered that sprints are like baking, i.e., one has to do things very carefully and in the correct order in order to get good results. Others felt that under certain circumstances a more ad hoc “grilling” approach would also be productive.

In the end, we agreed that sprinting is a technique that can be used to get results that more conventional approaches might not. Whether it is used to jump-start a long-term project, test an idea or help a client get unstuck, a sprint requires a certain commitment and discipline to stay focused on the goal and maintain a high velocity. For this reason, sprints are the perfect example of “process over product.”